Guest Columns

Dairy Marketing

Dairy: Delivering health and nutrition for millions of years

Joe O’Donnell, Ph.D.

Joe O’Donnell, Ph.D., has been involved in corporate and not-for-profit dairy research since 1983. He was executive director of the California Dairy Research Foundation from 1990 until he retired in 2012. He is a fellow in the American Dairy Science Association.

Research is just that — a search. People search around and around the things of this world and, as we figure out what makes them tick, we work in harmony with existing systems to direct selected benefits to our needs. Our survival has depended on this approach. We experiment with minerals, plants or animals to understand the world around us, and then apply principles to develop new products. I mean everything — all our medicines, engineering, energy production, the clothes on our back and the food in our belly — all of it started with researching something in nature and taking it another step.

Consider, “food in our belly.” Grocery store shelves attest to our genius in working with the goods of this world to meet all kinds of needs for taste, stability, variety and nutrition. People are good at research but nature gives us a running start. For example, about 300 million years ago, nature produced its first mammal. Developing mammary glands to produce milk served as a very successful survival strategy for the growing neonate and hence the whole class. Today, nature has pretty much worked out a lot of the chemistry, nutrition, immunology, digestibility, endocrinology and every other factor that goes into the construction of milk. Some will say that each species has its own distinct composition, and thus the milk of one species shouldn’t be used by a different species. Give me a break. Species specific milks are variations on a theme. The engineering of the system delivers health and nutrition like no other food. No vegetable, no legume, no tree nut was engineered and produced by mammals for mammals for the express purpose of delivering nutrition and health. Why on earth would we ignore this huge advantage of a food source?

Look at the engineering: Milk had to find a way to mix water and oil, protect oxygen sensitive nutrients, minimize waste products, maximize efficiency of production and utilization, provide an environment promoting proper microbial ecology, deliver metabolites to trigger appropriate hormonal responses and proper food intake and weight control … there is no end to this. Nature had to figure it all out and get it right with the alternative being extinction. The information on a product label pales compared to the complexity of a product like milk. Ignoring the engineering that enables the delivery of health and nutrition to focus only on basic nutrients sends a severely incomplete message to the consumer.

Some will say that milk is for “baby whatever” — such a shallow statement raises suspicions as to the true intent of such an argument. Who could present such an argument with a straight face? I mean, horses eat cereal so does that mean I can’t eat bread, oatmeal or beer!? Every food on earth belongs to our palate of nutrition. Focus on the true challenge — to understand our specific nutritional needs at various stages of life and health and then couple this with an understanding as to how each food can be manufactured to deliver against our needs in a compatible and interesting way. Once you start throwing foods out of the cupboard you reduce options for health and survival.

Since 1915, when the dairy industry created the National Dairy Council (NDC), the NDC has helped to uncover just how milk delivered nutrition and continues to do so today. Truth depends on knowledge and knowledge derives from research. Too often half-truths based on selected data find their way into the mainstream with pernicious results. Consider two examples from the annals of research where misleading the public led to very real harm.

The edible oils industry learned how to chemically hydrogenate liquid oils to become solid and spawned the margarine and shortening industry. As a plant product, margarine/shortening enjoyed lower costs and higher profits. These profits went into more research to discover that heart disease lesions contained cholesterol extracted from the blood. Being plant products, chemically hydrogenated margarine and shortening contained no dietary cholesterol and people jumped to the conclusion that margarine and shortening offered health advantages over milkfat (butter, cream etc.). Consider how this selection of data conflated the facts leaving the consumer confused. Research eventually came out showing that dietary cholesterol, with its poor digestibility, related only weakly to blood cholesterol. The cholesterol in the blood that was associated with heart disease originates (synthesized) in our liver. It is little wonder that the “statins” so popular today at reducing blood cholesterol work by blocking the synthesis of cholesterol in our livers. Without organizations such as the NDC we might still be at square one on this.

The second example highlights the precarious difference between chemical definitions and nutritional definitions. Although chemically hydrogenated vegetable oils were solid fat at room temperature, they do not fit the chemical definition of saturated and were excused from such labeling. Nature — e.g. our body — follows its own definition of healthy not the definition used by chemists. In the 1990s, Dutch scientists determined that the chemically hydrogenated vegetable fats, even though not chemically defined as saturated, created far more harm to health than the natural milk fats.

I write this column to stir the dairy industry to trust in their instinct to support nutrition research and use the data to assure consumers as to the wholesomeness of milk. With 300 million years of evolutionary development, I think we can trust the nutritional benefits of milk not only for neonates but also for the geriatric set and for anyone trying to heal or to stay healthy. As in the past, other foods will continually try to copy this model, adding flavor, color, nutrients found on the label etc. and sell for less. Great! All foods have their place in our highly varied and imaginative diets but milk with its complex engineering, specifically designed to efficiently deliver solid nutrition and health, remains as the tried and true platform upon which healthy diets are configured. I applaud the dairy industry for its investment in research and education and urge the industry to expand these commitments as this industry provides nature’s most perfect food for the health of all.


The views expressed by CMN’s guest columnists are their own opinions and do not necessarily reflect those of Cheese Market News®.

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